As teachable moments go, there’s really nothing quite like a pandemic to reveal the essential role parks and greenspace play in the nation’s physical and mental health. And our current health crisis makes abundantly clear that these important public spaces will continue to play an essential role in the nation’s recovery when the pandemic ends.
Nowhere is this lesson truer than in our cities, where park space is at a premium and where COVID-19 is exacting an outsized impact on low-income communities and communities of color. There is a fundamental inequity in Americans’ access to quality parks, recreation and nature. With the pandemic’s restrictions on travel, these inequities have only grown more apparent and more severe.
Parks give us space to move, to reconnect with nature and to relax, but their value goes beyond those well-known benefits. There is also the looming presence of climate change thrown into the mix, which parks can help lessen. Climate change has similar disproportionate impacts in communities of color due to decades of redlining and crippling disinvestment. Heat remains the number one climate-related killer and these communities often lack heat-abating greenspaces and have an over-abundance of heat-trapping pavement. Low-income communities are typically five to eight degrees warmer on average than wealthier, greener neighborhoods.
Of course, this all comes at a moment when the pandemic is forcing municipalities to slash budgets, precisely when they should be exploring additional funding strategies and new partnerships to invest in reversing these trends. In the face of this adversity, cities once again need to come up big. They need to be strategic about funding for climate resilience and community revitalization, and to be more creative about taxation and value-capture strategies to ensure more-equitable access to parks, recreation and nature for all citizens.
To help cities address the park funding crisis, City Parks Alliance launched the Equitable Park Funding Hub, a new tool for park professionals to explore more than fifty funding strategies for parks and public spaces in six key areas: brownfields, climate resilience, community development, conservation funding, stormwater management, and local funding approaches. The Hub builds on research done in collaboration with Urban Institute and Groundwork USA.
In particular, climate resilience is one area of opportunity for park and recreation professionals to consider to fund park and urban greening. The good news is that many cities, states, and regions are investing in climate change mitigation, and those efforts are paying off handsomely. According to FEMA, every $1 spent on mitigation, saves taxpayers $4 in recovery costs.
Two key examples come to mind. In Hoboken, NJ, following Hurricane Sandy, the city reassessed the flood management potential of its Northwest Resiliency Park. When it reopens in 2022, thanks to funding from the federal government, it will serve a primarily low-income community and host athletic fields, lowland gardens, open lawns, a park pavilion, playgrounds, ice-skating rink, spray water feature, and shade structures. In the words of one city manager, it will become “a fundamental part of Hoboken’s resiliency strategy.”
Across the country, in Las Cruces, NM, city leaders partnered with Adaptation International, an organization that assess at-risk resources, to win a NOAA Sectoral Applications Research Program (SARP) grant. The money will support interdisciplinary research into the impact of climate change on key socio-economic sectors. So far, the project has produced a prototype rainwater harvesting system in a low- to moderate-income neighborhood. Additional shade trees and vegetation and new stormwater management infrastructure—curb cuts, bioswales, and pervious pavement—will reduce flooding. Both efforts are funded by the grant.
These are just two of the many examples of how parks and greenspace are vital infrastructure that makes cities more resilient and economically and socially stronger while alleviating some of our greatest urban challenges—from stormwater management and flood prevention to economic revitalization, job growth and reducing the cost of public health. Any city managers and, especially, park professionals interested in long-term improvements that parks can bring, should take a moment to explore the funding strategies available in the Equitable Park Funding Hub. And then help us make The Hub even stronger by sharing your experiences winning grants and implementing programs that lead to wholesale improvements in America’s cities.
Caryn Ernst is director of strategic initiatives at City Parks Alliance.